organizational learned helplessnessLearned helplessness is defined in human psychology as a phenomenon when a victim of it feels that the environment cannot be changed by deliberate efforts. It is a kind of negative conditioning which develops a negative mental set about one’s abilities to cope with a certain phenomenon. According to psychologists, desire for effort remains alive till the time individuals believe that they have the ability to change their surroundings and their efforts can bring positive change. Learned helplessness restricts one’s motivation to take action; though breaking such a mental set can improve the condition, or at least, does not deteriorate further the existing situation. It is a matter of lost motivation. Porter & Lawler’s discussing motivation in VIE model say “the greater the individual’s expectancy that effort will accomplish task goals, the greater the effort expended; the greater the instrumentality or the perceived probability that reward is contingent on performance the greater the effort expended”. These two clauses indicate that if there is doubt in the belief that efforts will not bring the desired results due to any reason, a person will be preyed to learned helplessness.

The same phenomenon we can see in the organizational life. Although in human psychology, learned helplessness is not considered as pathological but a male-behavior. In the context of the organization, it can be considered as a neurosis which leads to organizational death, if not checked in time. If organizational efficiency declines to a great extent or could not achieve the desired level for a longer period, it frustrates the stakeholders, which leads to organizational learned helplessness. The organizational learned helplessness (OLH) is a collective perception rather an individual phenomenon. Collectively they loss hopes for positive development and apprehensively wait for organizational collapse. During OLH, participants’ interaction spoils further and they assign blame to anyone but themselves.

Whetten refers to Scott (1976) that the chief issue in the a management of declining organization is not whether it is capable of saving itself but whether it is willing to make the attempt. So, if participants are not willing to attempt to improve the condition of the organization it is by virtue of organizational learned helplessness. Organizational learned helplessness does not mean that participants are unfit for the other settings, instead, it only reflects that they are not optimistic about change in the company, therefore, they lose inter­est in the affairs of the organization.

It is a process of organization that develops OLH. All organ­iz­ations have vague or clear formal policies that outline pat­terns of acting in organizations. When these patterns do not bring fruitful results, major participants try to change them. If the changed patterns do not bring the expected results as well, it will create confusion among participants. Thus, the probabilities are that participants oscil­late between new and old policies & patterns of behavior. As a matter of fact oscillation plays a detrimental effect for the organization. The oscillation between policies depicts that the organization lacks reasonable strategic planning.

The organization can end up with learned help­lessness if there are strong underlying conflicts among major participants. Organization is an entity which is influenced by different individuals who purvey energy to the system. The inter­action among individuals strongly influences organizational internal environment. Organizations cannot have reasonable planning or could not develop if appropriate patterns of interaction are not present. Formalization along with participant’s interaction leads to develop different type of structures. The organization will be more susceptible to OLH if an appropriate structure is not emerged that fulfills requirements of the stakeholders
As it is stated above, learned helplessness is a conditioned response. So it is a vital issue whether or not it can be extinct. The simple answer to it is: yes, it is possible. The process of restructuring is to extinct the undesired responses of the organization.

Following the suggestions of rational theorists and behaviorists, it is possible by changing formalization and personnel, which will in return change organizational behavior. These techniques can be very effective in certain conditions but not in all. In some cases, organizations face multiple problems while applying such techniques.

It is said that key managers must have sufficient knowledge about its social structure if they want to extinguish the undesired organizational behavior. Roethilsberger & Dickson says “if we consider the organization as a social structure then the social structure itself is relatively stable and is not greatly altered by the movement of individual through it [3]”. Moreover, sometimes it is neither possible nor easy to replace the participants. Another point which is very important in changing key personals is that it can affect negatively on the rest of the employees because key position-holders have their own strong social power circles and the replacement of one can be considered a threat to a group. Organizations cannot afford to evoke negative feelings from the whole group. Hurriedly taken actions can raise alienation or antagonism within the organization. Notably, changing rules of the game is not as easy as perceived on paper. There are many complications which are related to such a change. Participants do not easily accept changes in the formalization because the change in formalization affects the interests of some individual or groups. Therefore, Roethlisberger & Dickson argue that it is a very important to consider “when & how” a change should be introduced.

It is also possible that apparent rules are not the real problems for the participants. Before bringing any change in formalization or personnel, it is essential to recognize the real problem. It is important to consider the structure of informal aspects of the organization, such as culture, informal grouping and conventions. If there is a drastic change in policy which affects the existing informal structure of the organization, it brings the organiz­ation back in the operational stage of matur­ity. This backward transition can lead an organization to death. Thus we can infer that extinguishing OLH also requires change in organization informal patterns.

In conclusion, extinction of OLH is possible but it is not possible to draw a straightforward strategy to extinct it. To extinct organizational learned helplessness, a research should be conducted within the organization to diagnose the underlying problem from which a remedy will emerge. However, it can be said conveniently that cognitive change in individuals is must to extinct or remove the symptoms of OLH.

 Learned Helplessness in Organizations

Related links

Masses Behaviour